Hitting the Wall
Reflecting on every Canadian critic's dilemma
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN CORRECTED.
I have been earning my living by my pen for some three and a half decades. I have never had writer's block. If anything, when I was writing fiction, drama, and even columns I always had too much to say. (Indeed, in the fictional world it was almost grotesque - when I told journalists that I had written a couple dozen novels before I was 25, I wasn't kidding. Of course the novels were all hideous).
What I have had, from time to time, is critic's block. I will see a show and think, "What in God's name am I going to say about this."
Sometimes it was because the show was neither here nor there: not awful enough to produce a delicious pan nor wondrous enough to inspire flights of prose enchorused by angels. In the last weeks my colleagues Kelly Nestruck at the Globe and Mail, and Isabelle-Anne Charlebois and Jim Murchison here at The CPC have told me about that same dilemma: meh.
Other times I have seen shows so incomprehensible that they defied discussion. But these, most often, drive me to rage. Critic's Arrogance (CA) kicks in. I have seen enough theatre of every sort and read enough books of every sort that I refuse to have the wool pulled over my eyes. I will say I don't get it and have, often, wondered in print if the creators themselves get it. Another thing: tepid applause on opening night tells me the audience doesn't get it either (as it seems to be a Canadian phenomenon that opening night=audience/camp-follower ecstasy at curtain call).
(I have never had critic's block when seeing plays from ethnic or feminist companies - if they are played for audiences beyond those communities - though I know critics who get all PC and adorable when faced with weak works from those companies.)
Critic's block strikes me hardest when the play is...well, let's say it: stupid.
Critic's block strikes me hardest when the play is...well, let's say it: stupid. If the play is stupid critics have a problem. They can get around it and call the work awful. Then it's the playwright's and/or the director's fault. But when a play is stupid it is the fault of everyone who is doing it: from the artistic director who chose the idiot piece, to the playwright who wrote it, to the actors who are not able to wring art out of a rag that is dry as dust.
Here is what makes the problem worse: some of our most popular writers write the most stupid works. Think of them as our Neil Simons. (And this is slightly unkind to Simon who has written some terrific comedies.) Each year these writers churn out their summer-theatre-style comedies/thrillers and everytime you see one you wonder why a GOOD comedy or thriller hadn't been staged instead. These scribes fashion pieces with lots of local references which send the audience (locals) into gales of delight. But there is no there there. They're not just wretched for being merely pleasant - they are more pernicious: they are insulting for their laziness.
I have decided to do the same, though differently.
So, this, week, I understood when Charles Isherwood wrote his manifesto vis a vis the works of Adam Rapp. I realized I was not alone. Isherwood doesn't think Rapp's works are stupid, he just doesn't like them and will now recuse himself from reviewing them. I think it's a fine idea. And I have decided to do the same, though differently. Unlike Isherwood I won't name the playwrights who drive me nuts. (I agree with Guardian critic Michael Billington on this score: what a fuss!)
But I simply cannot review or even see the plays of certain playwrights anymore. Life is too short to fill it up with the agro you would bring down on your head if you were honest and said, "I'm sorry Mr/Ms AD, but if you put that playwright's stupid works into your season then you are stupid too and anyone who likes the play...well, they're stupid as well."
There's honest and then there's CA that can hang a man.